Facing Our Fear of Failure
We never forget our spectacular failures; but more often than not, the fear, regret, and embarrassment evaporate, leaving behind the residue of a humorous story. After we have healed, what remains is the callous of proven resilience. At least, that’s how we should work through our failures in light of God’s sovereignty and goodness. Granted, this pattern does not apply so much to moral failures, or deep trauma, though those episodes can still result in redemptive value.
One of the best ways to develop the next generation of leaders in the church is to create a culture which allows the freedom to fail. Because, let’s face it, if you hand over your car keys to your sixteen year old, you can pretty well guarantee the car is not going to come back to you in better condition. The spectacle of driving which you will powerlessly witness will not be textbook safety nor race car precision. But unless you want to play chauffeur to your maturing young adult, you must run that risk.
So why, in the church, do we fear failure? The question is not so much why do we fear our own failure. The desire to save face, appear successful, and project a shinier image comes as the universal affliction of our human pride. However, we should question why we harbor such fear when it comes to allowing others to fail in church ministry? Not that we should ever seek out and court failure for failure’s sake, but why do we often have such a sharp recoil to the notion of putting forward a younger, inexperienced Christian who increases likelihood of bobbles and spills?
We have numerous reasons: the additional work created by having to clean up the spills, the prideful illusion that we are irreplaceable, the loss of control, etc. But these are less insidious. We all know, deep down, that we only forge ahead through new blood, and one generation must proclaim to the next the mighty acts of the Lord, i.e. the salvation of Christ (Ps 145:4).
We must do serious soul searching when it comes to the urge we all have to follow the ‘sanctified’ rationales against the potential failure of leadership:
- Failure isn’t honoring to God – it looks like God has failed.
- The desire to market & commercialize our faith – trying to replicate the mega church gloss.
Both of these tread on more dangerous waters than our prideful yearning for self-exaltation. They expose a confused theology about who is dependent on whom. Both merit more detailed explorations of their manifestations and varied packaging in today’s church, but they spring from the same misconception. We want to treat God and the gospel like a business product, the profitability of which depends on our planning and execution.
This sounds harmless enough – doesn’t God want us to do our work “as unto the Lord”? (1 Cor 10:31) The problem comes in the hidden assumption that God is in Heaven, wringing His hands over whether we have a typo in the call to worship, or a ministry leader who misinterprets Zephaniah.
When God calls Jeremiah to ministry leadership, Jeremiah expresses doubts and hesitancy about his inexperience.
“Ah Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you...Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jer 1:6-9)
No matter the ministry role, from preacher to greeter, we must remember that our authority and effectiveness relies on the power of God’s Spirit. We speak His words, not our own. God takes offense at the objection to youth because it belies an overestimate of human skill within Divine action. Fearlessness comes the more we can remove ourselves, and our credentials and qualifications from the equation, and instead rely on the sufficiency of God to do his work through His Word. This leads to a freedom to fail, which produces an environment in which new leadership can thrive. The solution is not to throw people into the deep end and shout ‘swim!’, but to swim alongside the learner, allowing him to flail a little bit. During those times, we can look forward to how God loves to have his power made known in weakness, not only through us, but despite us.